People have struggled to come to terms with how it is that we suffer for as long as anyone can trace. The earliest parts of the Old Testament include such wonderings and the prophets wondered why God allowed it. The Book of Job is often taken as the great essay on suffering, but I’ve never found that it provides a clear answer to the ‘why’. And that is part of the clue to understanding it – we don’t know. It is a given in how the world is and it’s more important to think how you will respond to it.
I was sent a newsletter the other day which included a link to the British Humanist Association website. In a moment of curiosity I clicked around it wondering just what they make of suffering, and therefore what Humanists might have to say to us in this pandemic. I’m not going to rubbish them, I found that there were many points at which I could agree with what they were saying.
Evil and suffering is a great head scratcher. Central in their arguments, in their questioning, is a series of questions or points put by Epicurus in the 4th or 3rd century BC. If God is willing to prevent evil but can’t, then God is not Almighty, not omnipotent. If God is able but not willing, then we question God’s morality. If God is both able and willing to prevent it, then where does it come from? These questions from Epicurus all assume that we know what is best and indeed can judge.
The Humanist website took these unreconcilables, or what they regard as unreconcilables, as being reason not to believe in God at all, or at least determine that there is no reason to believe in God – to draw an atheistic and an agnostic conclusion. Suffering is the great shaker of faith and for some destroys it. It also shoots down simplistic answers and that’s where I found myself nodding at some of what they said. But for me there were gaps in the logic and something very important was missing.
In the Book of Job, God is scripted with the lines asking Job whether he was there when God created the heavens and the earth, set the stars in motion and our reading was part of that script. It’s a long passage, lasting several chapters at the end of the book – he really gets it in the ear! (Job 38-42). In short was Job there when the creation was mapped out and set in course? The answer, of course, is ‘no’. The implication is therefore that he shouldn’t presume to know better. And neither should we. Our moral wonderings have to be approached with a degree of humility.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written another thoughtful piece this time for the New Statesmen. He points out that if we avoid facing the question of death and try to cheat it, if we think it shouldn’t exist, we end up also avoiding the question of birth. As we refuse to accept death and its reality, so we refuse to accept the limits of time and body. We are capable, he writes, of making a difference, but not all the difference. We depend on an agency and a gift beyond what we can clearly understand. There is mystery at the heart of birth and death and all that lies between. This is the perspective of deep faith.
We have to learn to accept our own limited place in the scheme of things. This is not to say that we don’t matter and that suffering doesn’t matter – there is no Buddhist denial of its reality here, but we are not the centre of the universe and if we don’t accept our own limited place, we don’t move over and give room for others, the new generation.
One of the things we are confronted with in our illness, weakness and mourning when we lose someone significant to us, is this limitation of time and body. Being mortal in a fragile and volatile world brings many risks and dangers, trials and disasters. The hope that comes through faith is that there is a purpose in this and we find it in the mystery of God.
To some that will sound like an intellectual cop out. It’s not, but it could be taken that way. It is rather to stare into this limitation of time and body and find there profound hope and presence. There is in the silence at the heart of the universe a love which brings us into being, holds us through all our days and welcomes us into a kingdom of peace and joy. In a healing service we connect with this hope and strength whatever we are facing.
Sermon for a service of wholeness and healing during Night Prayer, Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 2nd September 2020.